France / Switzerland, 1974
Review by Jason Woloski
Posted on 16 March 2005
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Idi Amin is the kind of historical figure who makes post-colonial theorists drool at the mouth, his mixture of traditional African heritage and adopted modes of “Western” leadership style being just one sign of a complex identity crises resulting from years of trauma at the hands of his white oppressors. Typical readings of Amin describe him as a man-child and a fool, completely unaware of how ridiculous he was coming across to the rest of the world, even as he laughed and murdered his way through nearly a decade of brutality as Uganda’s leader in the 1970s. As portrayed in Barbet Schroeder’s “self portrait,” however, Amin emerges as a man whose life may well have been lived as a commentary upon all that is bizarre and shameful about Caucasian imperialism, even if Amin himself was not fully aware that he was providing so rich and hyperbolized a commentary through both his actions and his behavior.
Soon after Schroeder’s documentary was released in theatres throughout Europe and North America, the Ugandan leader discovered that Western audiences were receiving the film with extended fits of laughter (due, presumably, to Amin’s extended, eccentric monologues in the film). Angered, Amin sought a solution to the problem in a fashion which suited his established reputation as a non-negotiating tyrant. He rounded up every French citizen in Uganda, forced them into a hotel surrounded by armed military, and threatened Schroeder (a Frenchman) with the citizens’ lives if the director did not agree to make specific changes to the movie. Schroeder later called the tactic “censorship by hostage,” but the changes were made.
Of the cuts permanently lost from the film, the most unfortunate is a piece of voice-over narration which accompanied the film’s closing shot, an extreme close-up of Amin’s shiny, expressionless face, his eyes darting back and forth repeatedly. As the film exists today, the final shot plays in silence. Granted, in the absence of a soundtrack, Schroeder does manage to leave the viewer with the same question that he has been asking, if only implicitly, throughout the entirety of the documentary: Idi Amin seems deeply afraid of something, but of what? What the original voice-over would have provided, however, would have been a partial, if indirect answer to Schroeder’s visual ponderings. The quote reads:
After a century of colonization, let us not forget that it is partially a deformed image of ourselves that Idi Amin Dada reflects back at us.
The quote is an intriguing one, in that agency, both on the part of Amin as “performer” and on the part of Schroeder as “documentarian,” is brought into question. In the absence of the lost voice-over narration, Amin comes across as a dictator whose paranoid fear of betrayal, matched only by a dangerous level of access to means for quashing said fears by killing everything and everyone who stood in his way, seems to be based upon little more than the irrational delusions of an ignorant black man who had somehow managed to make his way out of the jungle and into the highest position of power within his country, but who also constantly feared that power being taken from him. Presumptive readers of the documentary, based on this limited understanding of Amin, could conclude that Amin’s fears of betrayal became justified upon Schroeder’s arrival in Uganda, in that Schroeder’s successful betrayal of Amin — betrayal through subject exploitation – is repeatedly captured on screen, an example of a modern success on the part of the white captor to ensnare his black victim within the film’s frame. With the inclusion of the final quote, however, this apparent attempt to re-colonize Amin through the power of technology breaks down, in that Amin’s “performance” brings the role of imperialists into question, and also brings into focus the effects that imperialism had upon Amin’s well-being as a person, and upon the well-being of Uganda as a nation. That is not to say that Amin did not exploit and ravage Uganda in his own relentless ways long after imperialism had been eclipsed from Uganda, nor does it mean that Amin’s struggles over issues of betrayal were not already entrenched within him long before Schroeder arrived to make his film. What the quote does point to, though, is a much needed reappraisal of who and what was truly responsible for Amin’s behaviors and actions, and to what degree Amin was simply spoofing or aping, consciously or otherwise, that which had been entrenched into him by the colonial oppressors of Uganda’s past.
Beyond issues of ethics in documentary filmmaking and notions of documentary subjects being exploited by filmmakers, Amin’s relationship to betrayal is captured in the film repeatedly through his complex relationship with leaders (most of them white) from around the world. Even though these relationships did not prove to be reciprocal, in that Amin rarely, if ever received responses to his letters and postcards (which explained his support for Hitler’s belief that Jews should be erased from the planet), the writing of these letters did position Amin as a black man who was willing to betray the color of his skin and his fellow countrymen in an attempt to take an out-dated, marginal, but highly Aryan view against Israel and its citizens. Amin’s betrayal of his countrymen was further confirmed when he repeatedly, some 300,000 times, murdered the citizens of his country, in a seeming attempt to re-organize his own vision for what an African leader was supposed to be, and what an African country could come to mean, if traditions of the past were to be disposed of in the forms of dead bodies and the culture these dead people once represented.
Amin’s grand vision for Uganda’s future saw him build up what was to be an army that could compete with any First World nation’s, an economy and a tourist trade that would be the envy of fellow African nations, and an infrastructure that would be consistent and could serve every citizen in the country. In reality, and as captured in the film, parachute jumpers for the Ugandan army had to train on worn out children’s slides, Uganda’s economy went from thriving to decimated in a few short years, and the country’s attempts at a stable infrastructure were quickly exploited by doctors and professionals through privatization of services. By the time that Amin was forced from power by the Tanzanian government in 1979 (in a fashion similar to the way in which he gained power in the first place, that is say, he was overthrown), Uganda’s army had literally been wiped out, the country’s economy had the highest rate of inflation on the planet, and a good portion of the population lived in fear of death. The question which remains, however, is should Amin’s almost uncanny ability to alter that which he influenced, be it an entire country or a documentary feature film, into a realization of the limited, almost innocent way in which he envisioned the world be considered a reflection of his specific eccentricities as a personality, or was Amin a man whose true talent was to mimic all that is limited and backwards about established modes of imperialism, even as Westernized audiences laugh, but fail to understand the joke?